Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties

Recently I’ve been thinking about a book by Erin McKenna which I read as an undergraduate: The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. I read it then because it promised to bridge the divide between my favorite genre, science-fiction, and my interest in philosophy. But the book profoundly changed me, and I’m always surprised that others haven’t read it; it feels like a classic. Using John Dewey’s work, McKenna articulates what she calls a “process model” for utopias, whereby we distinguish disputes about “end-states” from judgments about the “ends-in-view.” And this has always deeply affected my politics and thinking about political philosophy. I tend to think that far too many theoretical and practical divides are reducible to debates about end-states, such that even though progressives, libertarians, and anarchists all share the same criticism of some aspect of the state, they cannot work together. Usually these disputes are bolstered by philosophical and theoretical apparatus. The divide between prison reformers and abolitionists, for instance, is understood by abolitionists through the lens of Foucault’s critique of the 19th Century reformers, whose reforms, though sometimes well-meaning, only intensified incarceration by making it more exacting and effective while empowering the reformers. Meliorists who merely protests injustices or inequities but do not loudly call for the absolute abolition of prisons are falling into a “carceral logic” by which prisons will inevitably be preserved in all their evils.

Where I find McKenna helpful is, first, in her claim that end-state disagreements tend to be associated with masculine utopias, while feminist utopias emphasize ends-in-view (which jives with my readings of the relevant science-fiction utopias, and also of polital theories that have utopian elements), and second, in her Dewyan typology for judging ends-in-view. According to McKenna’s reading of Dewey, there are five criterion (five questions, really) by which we can judge an end-in-view:

  1. Does it promote education and participation? Will the people participate in decision-making and goal formation?
  2. Is it realistic? Does it acknowledge our embeddedness in constraining contexts?
  3. Is it flexible? Can it be modified as new conditions emerge?
  4. Does it aim to develop capacities and abilities, not just states of affairs?
  5. Does it open up possibilities or close them off? Does it promote plurality or isolation? Cooperation or competition? Power or paralysis?

Halden Prison, NorwayThis is where I find abolitionism frustrating: the project of prison abolition seems like an end-state rather than an end-in-view. It deliberately ignores (1) the wishes of victims, citizens, and even many of the incarcerated (all of whom are understood to be duped and epistemically blinded by the ideology of carcerality unless they adopt abolitionism.) It doesn’t start with our current carcerality and work away from it, but rather starts with a rejection of the current context and the constraints it creates (2). It’s inflexible (3) in the sense that it does not allow that some limited carcerality (a la Norway?) might still be reasonable. Though there’s the sense that that is the direction that abolitionism must proceed, it does not currently emphasize the development of the skills and abilities (4) that alternatives to incarceration would require. And though it does aim to foreclose carcerality forever, I do think abolitionists are most concerned to promote plurality, cooperation, and empowerment (5) for some of the most dominated people in our world today, which is why I can’t help feeling the pull of abolition even as the other objections I mention raise red flags.

Meliorism, on the other hand, has all the problems that the abolitionists describe. Reformers work with and within the system to resist it, which requires all sorts of rhetorical and practical compromises. By chipping at the edges and living too comfortably with “constraints” and “realism,” (2) meliorists leave the status quo mostly untouched. We adopt democratic projects and processes (1), but leave the fundamental injustices in place. We develop capacities (4) but usually we can’t create the institutions and conditions (5) where those capacities will be actualized. We are, at base, flexible (3) with evil, and thereby compromised by it, while the righteous know that evil requires inflexibility and even sacrifice.

Angela Davis puts it this way at the start of Are Prisons Obsolete?:

“As important as some reforms may be-the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example-frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage. The most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call the ‘free world.'”

No reformer wants to “produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond prison,” but much of the rest of Davis’s book is devoted to the claim that reform is inextricable from that consequence. Ultimately, she equates prison reform with the absurdity of “slavery reform.” America’s prisons are historically and in current practice entangled with the Black Codes, the convict-lease system, Jim Crow, sexism, and antiblack racism; therefore, reformers are merely (hopefully unknowingly) fluffing the pillows while white supremacy and patriarchy is maintained:

If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

Yet consider: Davis assumes that the majority of the increase in incarceration has been driven by the drug war, and that alternatives to incarceration will foreground drug treatment and decriminalization of drugs. In fact, though the largest group of arrests are tied to drug use, the largest group of prisoners are incarcerated for violence; this reflects sentencing differences and the kinds of treatment diversion programs for which she calls. There’s good evidence that the drug war, poverty, and racist policing produce some of that violence, but not all of it. Plus, prison populations are already shrinking, but at least some of this decline is due to the increase of post-release strategies that export carceral logics into a parolee’s (or even an unindicted suspect’s) everyday life.  The goals of decarceration can fall into the logic of carcerality as easily as the goals of reform. So how much really separates reformers from abolitionists? A reformer might call for the restoration of prison education and voting rights, for the creation of schools that teach rather than prepare students for prison, for decriminalization and treatment of drug abuse, for poverty-reduction and racial justice, while still thinking that certain kinds of violence should lead to coercive detention, that restorative justice has dangerous implications when applied to cases of sexual assault or organized violence.

Corrections-in-the-United-States_0442512_21

And we see similar strands in Davis:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

A reformer sees nothing objectionable in those prescriptions, wants to join with the abolitionists for all their ends-in-view and put off the day when end-states might divide us. When the day comes that prisons truly are obsolete, reformers hope that they will be able to see that, too. But who really thinks that today is that day? Not Davis, who wants to “solve social problems” before throwing open the prison doors. In the meantime, why can we not work together to shrink and ameliorate the torturous institutions we all abhor? Why isn’t the reified distinction between abolition and reform as meaningless, today and for the foreseeable future, as the division between those who want to live in a world where the state withers away (Engels) and the world where the state has become small enough to drown in a bathtub (Norquist)? (Norquist now favors some decarceral strategies: is he an ally or an enemy?) If ends-in-view divide us, we must deliberate, compromise, and fight; so long as we are only divided in our utopias, why not collaborate?

Giving Well: Oxfam versus BRAC

"A Hindu Woman Giving Alms," by Raja Ravi Varma
“A Hindu Woman Giving Alms,” by Raja Ravi Varma

Daniel Levine has an interesting discussion of giving and giving well up today on whyiamwrongabouteverything:

When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).

Some may think it impolite, but I actually really appreciate that Daniel laid out his giving budget. 5% of joint household funds and 10% of personal funds dominates my giving budget quite a bit: last year we gave about 3% of our total pre-tax income to Oxfam (which is similarly ignored by GiveWell) so his commitments and reasons are particularly impressive. My family will likely scale back this year to make room in the budget for my wife’s unpaid maternity leave, but now social competition will give us an incentive to increase it!

He also highlights his preferred charity, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission. Despite the name, BRAC actually works in eleven different countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Because they are primarily funded by micro-finance, they are able to fund 80% of their own charity work. Donors pay for the rest. Yet the charity rating service GiveWell refuses to rate it. Before I met Daniel, I’d never heard of BRAC, and since then I’ve been trying to do my homework. Two potential objections have emerged:

  • Microfinance often involves usurious interest rates. Should we worry that this charity is largely funded by some of the people who most need charity? Hugh Sinclair reports that BRAC charges women in South Sudan 88% interest! If this isn’t as much of a problem as it seems, then why shouldn’t we see the self-funding model as sufficient, and direct our donations to organizations that cannot self-fund?
  • Is there any reason beyond symbolism to prefer a South-South charity to a North-South charity? And is the symbolism worth potential inefficiencies or less-than-optimal life-saving?

All of my objections boil down to a simple concern: is BRAC better than Oxfam? Perhaps Wrongzo’s nom de plume is a misnomer or humblebrag, but perhaps he and I have a disagreement, after all.

Academics like to distinguish between two questions: whether we can know the right answer, and whether there can *be* a right answer. William Easterly rejected this kind of mythology of metrics when he told Peter Singer that “it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty.”Perhaps Easterly is right to answer the first question with skepticism, but I believe we can answer the second question affirmatively: there is a “best” use for my money, some single expenditure that reduces suffering the most, even if we do not know what it is. People who criticize measurement efforts effectively admit that there’s such a thing as a right answer to the question of how to give, because they believe that Peter Singer and the metricians have the wrong answer!

If there’s a right answer, why not take a shot at figuring it out? So: is Wyclef Jean’s charity effective? A little research suggests not. The key here is that there may be many good answers, but there are certainly some bad answers, too. For instance: donating money to a church or to a museum doesn’t save lives, so those are demonstrably inferior kinds of charity. Even worse, sometimes our helpful efforts are actually harmful, as when we learned that some arsenic mitigation efforts may actually increase infant mortality! Whether microfinance at 88% interest is good or bad for a community is a matter that can be evaluated independently. And what’s more, it may be helpful even though it seems, to me, to be exploitative!

Yet it’s also possible that this is such a really hard problem that we’re better off with no information rather than some information. In donating to large charities with expansive internal research arms, we are essentially using part of our dollar to buy evidence about where the rest of the dollar should go. This seems wasteful! At some point, you reach diminishing returns in terms of the evidence-costs versus the marginal utility gains. Perhaps there really is no reason to believe that Oxfam’s or GiveWell’s internal metrics will help me direct my money better than traveling to a poor country and handing out twenty dollar bills! You may think I’m joking, yet I’ve actually seen this proposed by the economist Tyler Cowen. Perhaps we should skip airfare [overhead!] and simply mail the money to a random person!

That’s one reason I prefer larger institutional charities as informal indexers, in the portfolio sense: administrative/information costs are higher, but smaller as a percentage of total expenditures, while new money is always redirected to the best-informed current needs. Today’s best charities may not be tomorrow’s best charities. We know that, for instance, only about 50% of the population needs to be mosquito-netted to get almost all of the health effects. So at that point, it’s time to redirect the resources to a new cause, from malaria to diarrhea, say, or else new dollars could have no utility at all.

If we’re constantly analyzing the productivity of a charity, like GiveWell and Oxfam do, we’re likely to catch it. But if we’re sitting back and receiving the reassuring development letters from the charities’ staff, we’re likely to irrationally remain committed to the “less-than-best charity” for long after our donations have stopped having the optimal utility. That’s something Oxfam can do but VillageReach can’t. From the research I’ve done, I can’t tell whether BRAC is doing so or not; this was GiveWell’s problem in 2009 when they last evaluated BRAC.

You may well wonder: why even argue about charity? Shouldn’t we just give quietly and privately?

The various academics associated with Giving What We Can are engaging in a conscious effort to change the norms and standards of charitable giving. It’s true that donors mostly give for reasons of self-satisfaction, which is why consequentialists of various stripes are engaged in a quiet effort to change the conditions under which donors can successfully congratulate themselves. By working on the codes of honor and merit, they hope to have an outsized impact on the behavior of major givers and institutions. Academics recognize that we’re not rich and powerful, but we like to think that words and arguments can sometimes give us a bit of a multiplier effect.

To some extent, they’ve already succeeded, such that you see major criticisms of goals within global health and humanitarian aid communities for ineffective models, like the work of William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and David Rieff. More recently, some in the aid community have questioned the cost-benefit efficacy of the Gates Foundations’ attempts to eradicate polio.

But this requires a pretty strict consequentialism (though not utilitarianism) to which many retail donors object. Beyond the overall skepticism about knowledge and metrics, there’s an underlying fear that consequentialism levels the playing field between giving and consuming, and that this will become far too demanding for the average donor. Once you get started down this path, giving well goes from an analytic tool to a duty. It starts to sound overly demanding, and maybe even a bit melodramatic, like we’re all in the same position as Oskar Schindler:

This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

In the film, you’re supposed to think he’s being too hard on himself. But isn’t he right? Ten people died so some rich industrialist could drive around in luxury. How many died so that I could sit up late typing this post on my computer? How can that possibly be just?

It’s a common intuition: whenever we see a rich person spending lavishly on a boat or a sports car, don’t we sort of feel that they’re wasting their money, that there are folks in need who could use it better? Am I really a philistine for not appreciating the craftsmanship in a Porsche or the softness of 600-count Egyptian cotton? I like lots of luxury items, too: I’m not an ascetic. Right now, I’m lusting after the new suit, an expensive rowing machine, and lots of electronics that are totally unnecessary. I may even buy some of that stuff. But I think we should admit that it’s not particularly praiseworthy to spend my money on luxury goods while there are children dying from diarrhea and women living with obstetric fistulas. We could treat an obstetric fistula for $450 dollars. That’s less than an iPad! It seems like an easy choice, yet I’ve already spent more time dithering on the minute differences between BRAC and Oxfam than I do wondering whether to spend the next $450 I make on consumption or charity.

Can there be an excess of empathy? How would we know?

BPS has a gloss on this paper by Bremser and Gallup, which suggests that eating disorders and social anxiety may be an example of Extreme Female Brain:

too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.

The austistic spectrum disorders are believed (by some, but not all) to be evidence of extreme male brain, perhaps because of hypersensitivity to androgens, for instance. There’s a lot to hate about that theory, not the least because it takes typical male traits as biological in origin and thus discounts the social construction of gender hypothesis. But say it’s true. If so, there might also be an Extreme Female Brain. What would someone in that situation look like?

Well, Bremser and Gallup are suggesting it would combine three factors: disordered eating, social anxiety… and vegetarianism:

suggested a novel explanation for why vegetarianism is particularly prevalent among people with eating disorders. Previously it’s been assumed that vegetarianism is popular for this group as a means of calorie restriction. However, if eating disorders are part of the manifestation of an Extreme Female Brain, one that’s associated with exaggerated empathy, then vegetarianism may be a natural consequence of having enhanced empathy for animals.

At this point there’s little effort to tie anything to a particular etiology, but the suggestion is that one can literally care too much. My primary interest in this is as a would-be vegetarian and as a fallibilist. How would we know if we are caring too much? How can we ever know if our moral intuitions have misled us? Does the mere fact of making a sacrifice of personal well-being for another indicate that our care is excessive? Should we then say that humanitarian aid workers are pathological, civil rights activists delusional  and martyrs sick?

And what if “Extreme Female Brain” allows some to see clearly what others are blinded to? Certainly this is true for “Extreme Male Brain,” since autistic spectrum disorders do include many very intelligent people who can better analyze data or parse evidence than the supposedly-healthy men and women who are not on the spectrum. Why isn’t “extra care” a superpower? It’s associated with eating disorders, certainly, but only because of extraneous factors that cause a person with this hypothetical hypertrophied caring capacity to notice that what other people want from them is for them to be thin and beautiful! Their care is correctly reporting the desires of others!

At least for women. The study shows that men with eating disorders are actually incorrectly recognizing the emotions of others:

Among female participants, dysfunctional attitudes towards eating were associated with higher scores on an objective measure of empathising, one that involved interpreting emotions from pictures of people’s eyes. But for males, dysfunctional attitudes to eating actually predicted lower scores on the test.

The researchers surmised that perhaps these men were over-interpreting the pictures – “hyper-mentalising” – and seeing emotions that weren’t there, which would be consistent with their central thesis about the Extreme Female Brain. Supporting this, further studies found that dysfunctional attitudes towards eating and fear of negative evaluation by others also tended to go hand in hand with higher self-reported scores on schizotypy, including exaggerated suspiciousness, magical thinking and paranoia – arguably all signs of “hyper-mentalising”, and the opposite of what’s seen in autism.

Clearly this line of research has only just begun. We haven’t even established the causes and mechanisms of autism; there is every possibility that these speculations about the gendered brain are merely bad pattern matching. But it’s interesting to wonder about the big question: even presented with a pathological account of care, is it possible to believe that care for others could be in error? Lurking in the background for me here is Susan Wolf’s essay on Moral Saints, and anxieties about care ethics in general. What do you think?

Unions versus Women

Literacy is one of the major factors in female empowerment:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • Increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

I first learned about the curiously roundabout role of literacy in exercising more basic entitlements and capacities from Amartya Sen:

“Women are often deprived of their due, thanks to illiteracy. Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use even of the rather limited rights they may legally have (say, to own land, or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rulebooks that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rulebooks. Gaps in schooling can, thus, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.”

In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes (on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand) that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are forced to pay tutors which causes families to make cost-benefit choices and frequently to prefer their sons to their daughters, eliminating the benefits of universal provision of education. He concludes:

“Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.” (via)

Sometimes the entrenched interests of the rent-seeking middle-class are hard to recognize domestically but spring into focus when presented in a distant place. In this, we seem to suffer from a curious kind of far-sighted astigmatism. Of course, Sen would be the first to admit that many of the rich are rent-seekers, too: this is what it means to be a capitalist, to seek rent on capital. But then who is blameless of rent-seeking? Should we turn our attention to “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society“?

A Duty to Forgive?

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Arendt’s response raises interesting questions: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity,” she wrote.

In her letter to Auden responding to the Falstaff essay, she retracted the equation of judicial pardon and forgiveness, not in the name of a private redemption to be found through conscience and Christian charity, but through the distinction between law and politics. For her to acknowledge a private possibility of forgiveness, she would have had to recant her account of forgiving as an act requiring a plurality. Yet here she does acknowledge that forgiveness does intervene in intersubjective relations like friendship or family life. Auden’s criticisms, she said, helped her to understand that the judicial pardon is different from the Christian conception of charity, which demands that the charitable forgiver efface distinctions for the sake of the individual: “I may forgive somebody who betrayed me but I am not going to condone betrayal ueberhaupt [‘above all’ or ‘as such’]… But charity indeed forgives ueberhaupt, it forgives betrayal in the person who betrayed — on the ground, to be sure, of human sinfulness and its solidarity with the sinner.”   (Letter from Arendt to Auden, dated 2/14/1960) A wife might forgive a husband’s philandering, for instance, but she cannot forgive philandering in principle, which is what Arendt claims that Christian charity demands: an in principle refusal to judge or to punish.

Most importantly, however, Arendt reiterates the necessity of the other: the philandering husband cannot forgive himself, because the one’s relation to oneself is insufficiently plural for an action to take place. Here, as in her discussion of friendship in the Lessing Prize address, Arendt suggests that family or friendship may sometimes qualify as a plurality, but insists that the philosopher’s two-in-one cannot serve.[i] In solitude or memoir, thought returns only the contradiction between promise and trespass, whereas a legal or theological confession offers itself to another to be judged. In the juridical setting, that other is the victim or the prosecutor; in the theological setting, it is the divine or a priestly intermediary. Continue reading A Duty to Forgive?